How to Keep Your Job If You Have to You Go to Rehab: Understanding the FMLA


Contrary to the common stereotype of the strung-out addict living under a highway overpass, drug and alcohol addiction more often than not afflict full-time members of America’s workforce. In fact, most adults with substance use disorders in this country are employed full-time, according to a 2014 report by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

The more accurate profile of addiction in this country, then, is that of someone who is gainfully employed and working to pay their bills: the barista who serves your daily latte, the mechanic who fixes your car, the postal worker who delivers your mail, or the financial advisor who helps you plan for retirement.

An Untreated Drug or Alcohol Problem Can Cost You Your Job

This reality should not obscure the fact that a drug or alcohol problem can make it very difficult to hold down a job. In fact, the same 2014 SAMHSA report found that unemployed Americans were more likely to report a substance abuse problem in the previous year, one implication being that an untreated addiction led to their unemployment.

Depending on the job, an employee’s drug or alcohol problem may jeopardize other lives aside from their own. Consider employees in the transportation industries, for example. The pilot who binge drinks between transatlantic flights or the school bus driver who abuses prescription drugs puts many lives at risk.

Such dangers should be plenty of incentive for anyone with an addiction to go to rehab, yet only 10 percent of people with addiction actually get treatment. One reason why — and it seems ironic, considering what we just learned — is the fear of losing a job. What follows is some information that can allay that fear and help you protect your job if you have to go to rehab.

Advice for Employees With FMLA Benefits

Whenever we speak about this issue, the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law that can protect one’s job in certain circumstances where a leave of absence is required, invariably comes up. What I’ve found is that employees often misunderstand their rights under the FMLA.

One common misunderstanding, for example, revolves around the intermittent use of FMLA to address chronic illnesses and the medical appointments that accompany them. In such cases, a physician’s note is required, and your employer must approve the circumstance. A flat tire in the morning does not qualify as appropriate use, and like other forms of FMLA misuse, it may be disciplined.

The FMLA allows certain US employees to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid, job-protected leave per year for a number of specified reasons, one of which is medical leave because of a serious health condition such as a substance use disorder. When I educate employees about the FMLA, I tend to rely on what I call “the rule of 12s”: An employee has to have worked for a public or private employer for at least 12 months to qualify for FMLA benefits. Upon approval from their employer, they are allowed to take 12 unpaid weeks in a 12-month period, or will have worked at least 1,250 hours in that 12 months.

Here are some other important things to know about job protection under the FMLA:

  1. Qualified military families are protected for up to 26 weeks when an injury occurs during the course of service.
  2. Changes made to the FMLA in 2015 now allow same-sex partners to enjoy the same established benefit.
  3. An employee’s use of FMLA leave cannot be counted against them under a “no-fault” attendance policy.
  4. Employers must continue to provide group health insurance coverage for an employee on FMLA leave under the same terms and conditions as those before the leave.
  5. Upon your return, you are guaranteed the same pay, benefits, and other terms and conditions of employment, but you may or may not be able to move back into the exact same job position.

Advice for Employees Without FMLA Benefits

Employees without FMLA benefits must take alternative measures to protect their jobs when they go to rehab.

Begin with an attitude of confidence that you, your health, and your life are more important than your job. While it will require courage, a frank conversation with your employer about your condition may be in order.

One reason I encourage employees without benefits to go this route is that many employers that do not meet the requirements of the FMLA still practice — whether formally or informally — compassion for employees seeking care. By being appropriately open and vulnerable about your condition and couching your decision to seek treatment in terms of how rehab will help you become a better employee, you can invite your employer to view your request with empathy.

Excellent communication from the treatment facility where you go for rehab is also key. The facility may be able to send along paperwork that, in compliance with HIPAA privacy laws, can help an employer understand that substance use disorders are treatable conditions and should be treated as such. Such measures can go a long way in helping you keep your job when you go to rehab.

Janet B. Gerhard is director of public affairs for FHE Health.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice.

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